A dark comedy with unexpected heart.

THE VEINS OF THE OCEAN

After her older brother Carlito kills his girlfriend Isabela's baby girl because he thinks Isabela is cheating on him, 23-year-old Reina feels trapped trying to comfort him on death row—until his death frees her to start over in Crescent Key, a place where nobody knows her family history.

At first, Carlito claimed he didn't throw Isabela’s baby into the river on purpose; it was, he said, an accident. Never mind that it's the same thing Carlito’s father, Hector, did to 3-year-old Carlito when he thought his own wife had cheated on him. Back then, Carlito survived due to the lifesaving efforts of nearby fishermen. But now, alone in solitary confinement, Carlito “doesn’t try to act remorseful or even say he’s innocent anymore,” says Reina. Somehow Engel (It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, 2013, etc.) is able to find a lightness in a disturbing story to carry the reader through the novel. But this effervescent, breezy voice does jar, at times, with the dark subject matter. Still, Engel has crafted a detailed, rich world of vivid atmosphere and imagery: “the hum of the ceiling fan blades hit me like a torrent of screams,” Reina thinks, after her brother is found dead, a suicide hanging from the electrical cord of his fan. Finally free of her weekly visits to the prison, Reina moves to Crescent Key and finds companionship with Cuban immigrant Nesto Cadena and with the local dolphins—until she realizes that the only way she will truly be free is to reckon not just with Carlito’s death, but with the rest of her family’s ghosts as well. Here is the casual violence of men—and the tired acceptance of it that women face. But through it all rises Reina’s voice—her belief in optimism, in family, in the importance of life.

A dark comedy with unexpected heart.

Pub Date: May 3, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2489-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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